Government Cybersecurity: Tax-Supported Spying
We are paying our governments to spy on us.
Many of us may think cyber security implies preventing hacking, spam, ID theft, distributed denial of service (DDoS), and the myriad of scams that plague the Internet. In general, our governments have a very different interpretation -- which involves, essentially, spying on citizens.
The U.S. has at least four highly active NSA-sponsored domestic surveillance programs, including:
- The Terrorist Surveillance Program, which involves the monitoring of telephone calls.
- "Stellar Wind," a code name for a program that involves metadata mining.
- An unnamed program that keeps tabs on all the information that flows through Internet hubs under the control of U.S. companies and within U.S. borders.
- The "Pinwale" email exploitation program and database, which archives foreign and domestic emails and allows analysts to read many thousands of emails at a time. This was the program used to access the personal email of former president Bill Clinton.
- Obviously, these programs overlap and involve the regular and warrantless interception of millions of emails, VoIP calls, and online messages.
For a comparison of democracy in action across the pond, the U.K. figures just released are staggering. They show a 45 percent increase in warrantless Internet inquiries into private citizens’ online activities.
The situation was aptly summarized by the U.K. politician Chris Huhne:
The government forgets that George Orwell's novel 1984 was a warning and not a blueprint. We are still a long way from living under the Stasi, but it beggars belief that it is necessary to regularly spy on one in every 78 adults.
Clearly, in the pretext of the “War against Terror,” both governments have allowed security services and domestic spying to spiral out of control. One is reminded of the statement made by Barack Obama when he was a candidate for president:
There is little doubt that the Bush Administration, with the cooperation of major telecommunications companies, has abused that authority and undermined the Constitution by intercepting the communications of innocent Americans without their knowledge or the required court orders.
Eight months into Obama’s presidency, little has changed; cyber spying continues, and all paid for by the taxpayer in the U.S. and U.K.
It is possible, at least in the U.S., to gain a glimpse of these issues and to see this colossal battle of political will between the various players and the intelligence agencies, essentially over budgets and who decides what.
Witness the recent resignations of Rod Beckstrom (citing budget and NSA control issues) and Melissa Hathaway, who were originally Bush appointees, re-appointed by Obama. The resignation of Mischel Kwon from the DHS’s U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team underscores the challenge. The delay in appointing a cyber security coordination director at the National Security Council also has contributed to the perception that the White House is a few nodes short of a hub in this regard.
In reality this is a battle of the titans, between the White House and the security agencies, one that the NSA will win every time, as they have since their inception in 1952. Our best hope is that President Obama appoints a cybersecurity czar very soon, with the power to coordinate action -- and with, this time, an adequate budget.
The new czar should also be allowed to use a small proportion of the available $17 billion-plus budget to improve cyber security as we ordinary folks understand it. Surely, compared to the NSA’s 2008 electric bill of $21 million, that money wouldn’t be missed.